(ESSAY) Ship Everything! How A One Direction Fandom Consumes Me
Ruth Horsfall examines her time spent in the One Direction fandom by delving into the deeper regions of the Larry Stylinson sub-fandom. Unravelling her own entry through interfaces and media, from Tumblr to gif culture, she explores sources of reason and hype behind fan-fiction, shipping and tinhatting — and how the obsession with a fictional ship might become a desperate need for it to be true.
‘They can’t go on hiding their love for each other any longer so Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles (known by fans as Larry Stylinson) of the world's most profitable boy band One Direction decide to quit the band and live their best life: a life where they share their wealth in common with their fans and apply it to advance the joy of humanity as a whole; but more importantly, a life where they can live their true love – out and proud – openly and sincerely without irony or shame.' - Fully Automated Larry Stylinson by Owen G Parry
As a method of procrastination, my friend and I were spending a lot of time on Tumblr — a blogging website I had used sporadically since 2009 — when a single gif of Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson of One Direction (1D) fame appeared on my dash and piqued my interest. And although I can't remember exactly which one it was (I am sure I would recognise it if I saw it), I remember how it made me feel. The body language was so intimate, surreptitious — it was hot. And so my introduction to Larry Stylinson, the portmanteau that represents the so-called fictional romantic relationship between Harry and Louis; an exercise in what fandoms refer to as ‘shipping’. Having been too old to be swept up in the 1D hysteria of their early days, I didn’t follow any of them on social media or in the news and had not been paying attention to the extent to which fans now had access to their boy band crushes in a way I didn't have, coming of age as a tween in the early 2000s. I became obsessed with finding more gifs and fell headfirst into the fandom — even when my friend and I were apart, we found links, previously unseen gifs, and novel-length master posts dedicated to analysing the history of Larry. I started reading fan-fiction, preferably long, chaptered posts that took time to build sexual tension and intimacy, the kind I recognised from the gifs — they often came with 20 different content warnings for specific types of sexual acts like rimming or threesomes.
I spent a lot of time trying to rationalise the intense feelings I had during this period. I was often furious at the whole situation — furious at how in love I assumed Larry was, at how I had missed the boat in the 1D fandom and was now chasing details about things that fans had moved on from 12 months earlier. I was furious that my own relationship didn't feel as pure and love-filled. Nor was it being lived out in palatial trans-Atlantic mansions; nor was I impossibly beautiful, rich, and famous. I was furious with the limitations of my reality when it felt like Larry was the perfect mix of safe, reciprocated, and vulnerable love. I literally could not stop thinking about the easy closeness of their sweet, comfortable relationship and how everyone around them seemed to understand their connection fondly. In hindsight, I wonder how much of this was because my relationship was in a tricky state of flux, and my feelings of uncertainty, queer repression, and the nagging belief I was 'missing out' on something more (whatever that was) meant my desire for something authentic, silly, and very obviously loving was reflected at me through the bottomless online cache of Larry content.
By the time I discovered Larry, their IRL relationship seemed to have cooled. In late 2014, the discourse I consumed around their relationship was fixated on the theory that their management wanted to quash Larry rumours, supposedly forcing the boys to stop their goofy PDAs. Big parts of the fandom were fixated on the idea that Larry was prevented from coming out by contractual obligations placed on them by their owners, Modest Management, driven in part by Simon Cowell. Not only that, but they also alleged both Harry and Louis were encouraged (or forced, depending on who you speak to) to maintain public relationships with women. This is demonstrative of the jump from shipping, to ‘tinhatting’: the belief that the people you ship are actually together in real life (or could be together, if there weren't unnamed powers keeping them apart). When you're not in the fandom, I appreciate this seems unhinged. But at the same time, in 2020, is it that unbelievable that an incredibly wealthy and powerful capitalist organisation would take extreme measures to ensure that its major cash cow, in an industry forced to turn a profit on tighter and tighter margins, remains as lucrative as possible, for as long as possible?
I have had to come to terms with the fact that I was freely engaging in tinhatting in every sense of the word. It had reached the point where I was without any shred of doubt that Larry was real and that it was only a matter of time until they were able to come out. In November 2014, after 1D’s album, Four, was leaked, I wrote to a friend: omg have you been following larry of late? Everyone is flipping out after harry did an interview in which he responded that being 'female' was not an important trait that he looked for in a partner. Global media is running with it and so the fandom seems to think larry coming out is imminent haha.
I honestly still remember how deeply within my bones I wanted Larry to be real. Of course, no one in my day-to-day life took what I was saying seriously, but even others I interacted with in the fandom online seemed to be drifting away from me, unable to match the rabid fascination I wanted to maintain with Larry. The fandom was changing. Having watched their behaviour together change since the band’s early days, some ‘Larries’ believed that the Larry rumours had made Harry and Louis fearful of interacting lest they encourage tinhatting. I did not relate. The love these fans felt for 1D seemed less horny and less in tune with my deep desire to know, for certain, that these men were fucking. Theirs was more a maternal love — deeply protective of Harry and Louis, believing that the Larry rumours had negatively impacted their careers and wellbeing — irreparably changing their dynamic and, by extension, that of the band. This seemed to be in response to statements by other members of the band and, on multiple occasions, by Louis himself, most recently in September 2019 following the unexpected addition to the Larry pop culture canon in the TV show Euphoria, in which one of the characters, Kat, becomes Tumblr-famous for writing Larry Stylinson fan-fiction. Rarely have two of my interests converged so neatly and pleasingly in one place.
The actor who plays Kat, Barbie Ferreira, said at the time:
You completely give yourself to this persona of a person you don’t even know, or five guys, and imagining the way they interact, the escaping from your own reality. It’s really interesting to me because I was definitely a part of that, where I wanted to escape my own life and focus on others because it was easier and felt more meaningful.
Louis was quoted as saying “Again, I get the cultural intention behind that. But I think… It just felt a little bit… No, I’m not going to lie, I was pissed off. It annoyed me that a big company would get behind it.”
The most intense Larries are notorious, even in the broader fandom. Daisy Asquith’s documentary Crazy About One Direction (also unpopular with many fans) spends time with some hardcore teenage 1D fans around 2014, many of whom were at pains to point out that Larries went beyond what was considered acceptable in shipping a relationship between Harry and Louis.  A change.org petition was launched following the Euphoria episode to protest the inclusion of the short storyline on the basis that it was an overt sexualisation and an invasion of privacy. To me, this combined latent homophobia towards Larry and misplaced paternalism many devoted Larries seem to feel — one thinks that Harry and Louis, two very wealthy men, are probably just fine, but it does seem that this anger at times is fuelled by Louis' discomfort with the theories. It is strange that many of the comments on the change.org petition are around the explicit sexual nature of the animation, and that it has 'exposed' Harry and Louis, and invaded their privacy — it is hard to understand whether this is because they think Larry is real, and their relationship deserves privacy, or that it is perpetuating the false rumours. Either way, the band has always embraced and played up their playful flirtiness with one another, to the extent that a quick google search finds Buzzfeed essays about 1D’s queerbaiting (‘One Direction is Really Good at Playing Gay’) and listicles that suggest queerness in One Direction being one of the things that large sections of the fandom liked about them (‘The Ultimate Collection of Gay One Direction Gifs’). A few years ago, self-described ‘Directioner’ Jess Zlotnick wrote an academic paper on how 1D conform to expectations of boy bands in that they intentionally speak to a young female audience and aim to mine that market segment accordingly for financial gain.  The paper suggests the band challenged male homosocial behaviour in their performance of a male friendship that wasn't concerned with being seen as 'gay'. It was these behaviours that the fan community latched onto as 'indicators of suppressed queer sexuality', taking what was merely subversive behaviour between straight men as friends, and drawing their own conclusions. Jess considered the sexualities of Harry, Louis, or any other member of the band as ‘irrelevant’, despite the fact that Harry has gone on to have a solo career buttressed with outward displays of queerness and androgyny while remaining coy about his identity. We aren't owed a coming-out by Harry, but being deliberately ambiguous about your sexuality (while chasing the 'pink dollar') remains an inherently political act. Given we're in a pop culture that is unprecedentedly queer, is an allusion to queerness enough? Their sexuality was sufficiently relevant and interesting to a young and increasingly socially aware fan-base, who were perhaps better attuned to the nuances in intimacy that suggest something more than just platonic friendship.
I kept bringing my mind back to my tween years — would I have lustfully fantasised about two members of the Backstreet Boys being in a relationship with one another? Would I have written fan-fic about Jay and Scott from 5ive finally falling into bed with one another for a passionate rimming session after ten long chapters of simmering sexual tension, based on what I thought flirting was as a 12-year-old? I didn't know any gay people when I was a child, I didn't even consider that people I knew identified as anything other than heterosexual. At the age of 21, I didn't think that I might not be straight after sleeping with women, so it seems unlikely I was projecting hopeful transgressive sexual relationships between boy band members in a regional town in NSW in the early 2000s. Although, who can say I would not have developed similar desires or interests if I'd had unfettered access to those bands on social media.
Artist and academic Owen G Parry, who generously spoke with me while I wrote this essay, created a piece in 2016 called Larry!Monument, which involved videos of Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson from One Direction touching one another, or experiencing moments of intimacy and flirtation being paused. The images were then ‘delicately traced by … hand, scanned … then machine-etched into perspex - forever!’. When I read that, I felt like Owen had somehow been present with me in 2014, etching images of Harry and Louis onto my brain that I couldn’t erase. When I read an interview with Owen that quoted him saying that Larry shipping was ‘a safe place to test out your sexuality’, it is soothing to recognise the urge to thrust my latent queer energy into a short, intense obsession with a ‘perfect’ queer relationship as the first steps in pulling on the threads to unravel the last of my compulsive heterosexuality.
I emailed Owen to see if he wanted to chat to me about Larry for this piece, and he responded to say he would be happy to meet, and that one of the nice things about fandom is that it doesn’t have to be a productive pursuit. Owen’s expansive work on the relationship between fan and artist was prompted by his encounter with the Larry Stylinson sub-fandom on Tumblr around 2013, much like me, except in Owen’s case, that led to an entire body of artistic and academic work. While on Tumblr, he encountered (and later interviewed) artist Karukara, one of the most prolific Tumblr artists to create images of the imagined relationship between Harry and Louis. Reading the interview, I feel intensely maternal towards Karukara even though we probably used Tumblr around the same time and are of a similar age. I have a clear idea of a classic ‘Larrie’ in my mind that is a projection of my teenage self — a deeply insecure young person who can't make sense of their feelings, emotions, or desires, and doesn't have anyone to talk to about them. That was part of the original appeal of Larry to me, and where my mind went when I thought about writing about it — how amazing that kids were now undertaking queer activism online, and fiercely advocating for a queer relationship with the members of the boy band they fancied. Young women raising awareness, and taking rainbow flags to shows and using words like ‘cisgender’ — understanding things that I wasn’t exposed to, let alone given space to learn about until I was in my mid-20s. In the documentary I Used to be Normal: A Boy band Fangirl Story, Dara, whose obsession is Take That, says, ‘I don’t want Gary Barlow, I want to be Gary Barlow’. As with so many of the documentaries on young women obsessing over boy bands, I feel a protective devotion towards their love, recognising how the desire for members of a boy band can stand in for all the things that are missing in your reality.
Even re-reading fics now, or seeing pictures of Karukara’s, all those original feelings I had flicker down inside of me, coming alive again. I tremble when I think about Harry and Louis holding one another tenderly, and when I see a drawing of them embraced, I almost well up, remembering how pure and worthwhile it felt. The pictures swim around inside me, never really dissipating. I still feel like an interloper in the fandom, like I just slid into the warm waters and bathed to forget my own personal pain, and hauled myself out and moved on with my life when I didn't need to fixate on the relationship any longer; like I wasn't a real fan. I have always found it difficult to identify as a fan because like so many things in my life, my affection and interest in things feel tepid and unrealised. Fear of rejection and looking silly prevents me from fully participating because what I like feels like what I can only describe as performative. Even in the act of writing this, I find myself sitting in front of the computer, staring out of the window, idly wondering who the fuck I think I am to write a personal essay about how I lost three months of my life in 2014 to a niche One Direction sub-fandom. And not only that — my specific feelings related to my brief interactions with the fandom, and its impact continues to reverberate throughout my life. Writing this feels inappropriate and misguided because it’s as if comparatively, I know so little, even though I can't account for why I still want to think and talk about Larry. I still regularly recall my Larry fixation to people, fiercely telling them that if they knew the things I knew, they’d believe, too. I miss my private, guilty pleasure, exchanged surreptitiously by SMS with one friend, gleeful in our shared secret.
Logging on to my Tumblr today carries conflicting feelings — I would go on occasionally to see if my favourites were still active and seeing their posts still zip past my screen, it's like no time has passed at all. I can't quite fathom that they are still there. I sent a message to a Larrie whose Tumblr I found by way of her academic paper on One Direction slash-fiction (the term used to describe fan-fiction between two men who might otherwise be seen as heterosexual) called 'Hyping slash to a new hypertext: One Direction fans blurring the lines of reality’ to see if she wanted to have a chat to me about this essay (she hadn't responded at the time of submission). One of my favourite accounts too-old-for-this-ship (honestly, same) is still posting painfully cute gifsets of Harry falling over on stage or waving about rainbow flags, and other nostalgic One Direction detritus along these lines. Someone has shared an online petition to save the only HIV specialist hospital in London. Like Facebook, Tumblr has an auto-scroll function, and I can feel it calling to me, a subconscious yearning to reach the non-existent end of the content, not wanting to miss out on the one thing that would make the hours lost worth it.
Much of the writing and reflection on Larry online is from adults, and not exclusively fans (or ex-fans) — the various documentaries, the Fansplaining podcast, and Owen's work as part of his Fan Riot project among them. When I thought about writing this, I was more focused on thinking about how the Larry fandom led to young people (mainly girls) shipping a queer relationship between their ‘faves’, rather than shipping a fantastical relationship between themselves and the subject of their fandom. I wasn't so interested in understanding my vulnerability to an intense obsession that was quite literally keeping me up at night, and more in how I thought I was witnessing a revolutionary re-writing of the teenage-girl-obsessing-over-a-boy-band narrative. I was so excited that thousands of teen girls had access to information about sexuality that could be shared with peers, and not only that, a diversity of sexualities. Brodie Lancaster wrote in the Guardian in 2019 that basic details about how One Direction formed, or how successful they have been as a band are ‘... just facts [but] experiencing One Direction through their most active years was almost entirely reliant on feelings. It was emotional, not logical; instinctual and kind of accidental.' When we spoke, I asked Owen whether he thought I could have found myself caught up in a different fandom and whether it was purely accidental that Larry hooked me. He said he didn't know, but that given that the fandom was what inspired his Fan Riot work, it seemed to him that this was a particularly compelling fandom that, for whatever reason, drove people to various degrees of obsession. I had to quell all the feelings inside me writing this that said I shouldn't be writing something I didn't have the dedication to commit myself to fully, but in exchange for ruinous self-doubt, I got validation and satisfying self-reflection — a true fandom experience.
Text: Ruth Horsfall